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Sixteenth century image of Murder of the Protestants at Sens, 1562

Dr Tom Hamilton from our Department of History has discovered criminal records revealing a rare, 400-year-old legal case which successfully prosecuted a soldier for sexual crimes during Europe’s notoriously violent Wars of Religion.

Justice after war

The case was led by powerful widow and landowner, Renée Chevalier, who was appalled by the sexual abuse of villagers on her land in central France committed by military captain, Mathurin Delacanche from 1590-91.

Almost a decade later, following the end of the Wars of Religion, Chevalier was determined to seek justice and transported 57 villagers by boat from central France to bring their case before the high court in Paris.

She won the case and Mathurin Delacanche was found guilty and hanged in 1600.

Challenging historical assumptions

The success of the case shows that justice against such atrocities was important, even in the 16th century, challenging assumptions that rape and pillage were tolerated at the time.

It is remarkable that such a landmark case was instigated and won by a woman, who used her wealth and influence to fight for justice for her villagers.

A weapon in war

Dr Hamilton believes this case provides a new, historical legal precedent relevant today, when sexual violence remains a weapon in war.

He suggests that if such crimes could be prosecuted over 400 years ago, then international and national courts should challenge themselves to do so with greater success in the 21st century.

This view was supported by Professor Nicole Westmarland, Director of our Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse (CRiVA), who commented; “As we continue to see significant barriers to obtaining justice in rape and serious sexual offence cases, Dr Tom Hamilton’s book on what happened in the past gives us renewed optimism for the future.” 

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Image details

Image is part of a wider painting of the the massacre at Sens, 1562, showing the instances of violence in the Wars of Religion. Original source - Murder of the Protestants at Sens, 1562, Frans Hogenberg, 1565 - 1573 - Rijksmuseum